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What is Growing Organic?

Organic-MainHeader-StorymapThe USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) brings people together across the nation for healthier food, natural resources and people; a stronger agricultural industry; and economic growth, jobs, and innovation.

Organic is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture, with demand steadily outpacing the U.S. supply. Organic agriculture and NRCS’ goals are well aligned. Many of the USDA Organic regulations can be achieved using NRCS conservation practices, which reflect these shared goals.

What is Organic Farming?

To be “certified organic,” producers must follow regulations outlined by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Organic agriculture is an ecologically based system that relies on preventative practices to deal with weeds, insects, and disease, using nontoxic methods for any problems that arise. Organic practices require the use of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and preserve biodiversity. Organic producers avoid synthetic fertilizers and do not use sewage, sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering on their operations.

Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming. Early leaders of the organic farming movement emphasized that successful farming depends on the health of all natural resources on the farm and in its surroundings. Organic producers strive to develop farming systems that mimic nature and utilize natural processes.

More and more farmers and ranchers will be transitioning to organic to meet growing consumer demand, which currently outpaces U.S. growers’ supply.

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NRCS & Transition

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It takes 3 years to transition land to an organic system that was previously farmed conventionally. Farmers may choose to have both organic and nonorganic fields, but must create buffer zones between them.

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To be considered organic and to use the USDA Organic seal, all operations with more than $5,000 in organic sales must be certified by independent, third-party USDA-accredited organizations. The application to become certified organic and use the USDA Organic seal includes:

1. Detailed description of the operation
2. History of substances applied over the past 3 years
3. Organic products grown, raised or processed
4.  Organic System Plan describing practices and substances used

NRCS Technical Service Providers can help producers develop a Conservation Activity Plan for Organic Transition.

The USDA Farm Service Agency offers up to 75 percent – up to a maximum of $750 per year – reimbursement of organic certification costs.

Healthy Soil

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Crop Residue imageSoil health is the foundation of organic farming. Diverse crop rotations, cover crops, nutrient management and conservation tillage are examples of NRCS practices that feed the soil, reduce erosion, improve soil structure, and enhance nutrient cycling and water retention.

NRCS follows four soil health principles:
1.    Use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil.
2.    Manage soils more by disturbing them less.
3.    Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil.
4.    Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

By rotating crops across their fields from season to season, organic farmers add biodiversity and increase resilience in their operations while increasing their soil’s organic matter. Throughout the growing season, cover crops act as a green manure, providing an additional source of nutrients that build soil organic matter and reduce the need to bring in additional inputs from off-farm sources.

Organic no-till systems, such as the roller-crimper, have also helped organic producers reduce the intensity of soil disturbance in annual crop rotations.

By using NRCS soil health principles and systems, farmers can sequester more carbon, increase water infiltration, and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

Weed & Pest Management

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Insectary imageA single weed can produce more than 10 million seeds and, if not dealt with in time, weeds can present challenges for years to come. Pest management on organic and transitioning farms requires a holistic approach. It relies primarily on preventing and avoiding pests with cultural and mechanical suppression.

For example, insectaries attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs, that biologically control pests. Companion plantings draw pests away from crops. Installing nesting sites such as bat and owl boxes can also help manage pests. Additionally, cover crops naturally break the cycle of soil-borne diseases, and some soil-dwelling insects, while increasing the soil’s organic matter.

Cover crops are one of the most effective tools for suppressing weeds, and they work in three ways.
1.    When alive, they outcompete weeds for water, nutrients, and sunlight.
2.    As mulch, they minimize weed growth by physically preventing the germination of weed seeds, cutting off access to light and warmer temperatures.
3.    When certain legumes, cereals or brassica decompose, they produce natural herbicides that can suppress weed seed while sequestering carbon.

NRCS can also help growers implement conservation tillage practices. Organic no-till uses tools like the roller crimper to kill cover crops while leaving their residue as a green mulch to trap soil moisture while preventing sunlight and weed growth. Farmers can install a variety of other mulches made from natural materials, paper, or plastic installed at the beginning of the growing season. Rotating crops and timing planting dates to avoid weed germination windows are other effective weed suppression strategies. Farmers can also use things like flame weeders that kill small weeds, mechanical weeding or approved organic herbicides made of natural substances.

Not all weeds are bad, though. Research shows that plants can tolerate some level of weed pressure before yields are affected. Weeds can benefit soil health by adding organic matter, and weeds such as dandelions can provide early season forage for pollinators.

Habitat

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NRCS can help organic farmers work with nature instead of against it, building and conserving vital habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife.

Conservation plantings such as field borders, hedgerows, and riparian buffers can help protect water and soil resources and provide wildlife and pollinator habitat. These may also harbor natural enemies of pests and intercept pesticide and pollen drift from neighboring non-organic farms.

Wildlife corridors and wildlife-friendly fences maintain connectivity for wide-ranging wildlife, such as deer and predators, and keep them away from crops. Structures like owl and bat boxes create places for beneficial wildlife that reduce pests.

NRCS can also provide assistance with biodiversity practices that include stream habitat restoration, tree and shrub establishment, wetland wildlife habitat management, prairie restoration, multispecies native perennials for biomass and wildlife habitat, riparian buffers, terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat, and prescribed grazing management.

Water and Irrigation

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NRCS can help organic farmers with irrigation water management strategies tailored to their farm’s specific needs. Conservation practices can also protect water quality in the surrounding ecosystem.

Irrigation management plans combine conservation principles with efficiency, balancing a farm’s water needs with those of nature. Tools like drip irrigation, which provides water precisely where and when it’s needed, can achieve greater precision with flow meters and soil moisture sensors. Farmers can also conserve water by increasing their soil’s water holding capacity and using conservation tillage to keep the ground covered, reducing water loss through transpiration and evaporation. NRCS agricultural engineers can use satellite-tracking tools to conduct precise topographic surveys, then design complete site-specific irrigation systems, from wells to pumps to pipes to hookups out in the field, saving water by improving irrigation efficiency.

Well-managed organic systems rely on slow-release forms of nutrients, which reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching. These practices help maintain water quality, while enhanced soil structure, water infiltration, and better nutrient retention also protect water quality. NRCS-developed nutrient management plans, cover crops, and buffers keep soil and nutrients in place and filter runoff water.

Livestock & Pasture Management

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Organic livestock producers provide living areas that encourage the health and natural behavior of their animals. They use only certified organic feed, provide year-round access to the outdoors and access to pasture for ruminants, and don’t use antibiotics or growth hormones.

NRCS can help organic livestock producers with practices such as pasture and grazing management – including rotational grazing, diverse pasture plantings, fencing, and walkways, watering facilities, and shelters for animals. Diverse pasture plantings provide livestock with well-balanced, nutritious forage that keeps them healthy. Using season-specific plantings is also good for the entire ecosystem.

Growing Organic bookletDownload our growing organic booklet now.

To learn more about how NRCS helps organic farmers, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/organic.